Loneliness affects roughly 2.4 million adults in the UK and is becoming increasingly common in our society according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Sometimes we might use gaming as a distraction to feeling lonely, but there are many steps you can take to help yourself.
Young adults are more likely to feel lonely than older age groups, with almost 10% of people aged 16 to 24 feeling ‘always or often’ lonely. Older people are also especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, with over half of all people aged 75 and over living alone. Anyone of any age can be affected by loneliness, though.
How does loneliness impact our health?
Loneliness can seriously affect our physical health just as much as it can affect our mental health.
“Scientific research now shows that chronic sustained loneliness decreases our body’s ability to cope with illness via our immune system, whilst increasing our risk of heart disease and stroke,” she explains. “We may physically feel ‘slower’ when we are lonely and this can, in turn, lead to impaired cognitive functioning.”
There is also a strong link between feeling lonely and mental illness. Although loneliness in itself isn’t a mental health problem, people with a mental health problem may feel lonely – and feeling lonely may have a negative impact on someone’s mental well-being.
“Struggling with a mental health problem can be isolating, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health,” says Rachel Boyd, information manager at Mind.
“Your self-esteem may be low, making it hard to keep up social contact, or you may feel too low or exhausted to spend the time you would normally on hobbies or activities that connect you to others.”
Why are we so lonely?
There are thought to be many reasons that loneliness is growing in our society. Some suggest that high living costs and stagnant wages may contribute to loneliness, as these factors can prevent people from socialising.
Social media is also thought to be part of the problem. We are in constant virtual contact with people via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, which numerous studies have shown can actually increase feelings of loneliness.
Freddie Cocker, 24, founder of the mental health platform Vent, shares his experience with loneliness-
“Sometimes if I’m on my way home from a night out on my own and there’s a couple opposite me or if there’s a group of friends chatting and enjoying each other’s company, that can make me feel quite lonely and isolated,” he says.
Cocker adds that being online can make it worse. “The danger with that is getting lost in social media and the perils that come with that – humble-bragging, narcissistic, boastful posts about how great someone’s life is.”
He adds that he has a supportive friendship group, but loneliness can still take its toll.
“It makes you think you’re smaller than you are, under-appreciated or unworthy of love or friendships,” Cocker says. “Loneliness makes you think you have no friends, even though you might have loads who love and support you.”
How to help yourself
Connect with others
“Connecting up with others may seem impossible when we feel lonely, and yet this is what we need to do to break what may have become a cycle,” Boutet says. “Dwelling on our feelings of loneliness can be unhelpful – we need to actually reach out. By doing so we are taking care of ourselves.”
Do something you enjoy
Making time for things you like, whether that is exercise, a hobby, or playing your favourite game with a friend, can all help reduce loneliness.
“When we are busy doing something we enjoy, such as an evening class or a local gym session, we can connect up and feel brighter,” she says. “Too much time spent online can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness so perhaps we can log off and go out into the real world. Looking after our physical health is also vital, so healthy eating and exercise are important.” Boutet explains.
“While you may not feel like it, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels,” Boyd adds.
“Research shows outdoor exercise, such as cycling or jogging, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. Taking part in a group activity like cycling or basketball can help you meet new people too. Visit Get Set to Go to see if there are any groups in your area; if not, you could look at your Local Mind to see if there is something in your area.”
How to help others
If you think someone is struggling with loneliness, there are ways you can help them too.
“Reach out to them, face-to-face if possible but, if not, just talking over the phone shows you’re willing to invest time into making sure they’re alright,” Boyd says. “Offer to go to a class or group activity with them. You don’t need to join in but even helping them get there can be supportive.”
It’s important to listen to what they have to say, though, and not to make assumptions. “People can feel lonely even if it looks like they have a busy and full life. Letting people be honest about feeling lonely can help them understand what’s going on, and start to think of ways to feel better,” she adds.